Most readers will open this book of sorcerer apprentice tales and think of Disney’s Mickey Mouse incarnation of the cute apprentice who gets up to mischief during his master’s absence. The mops and buckets of water that keep relentlessly marching on and on to flood the house only being halted when the sorcerer returns. Mickey’s inexperience and inability to control events are accompanied by the music of Paul Dukas. All very enchanting animation. But the moral message is very Walt Disney: don’t meddle in things that your elders, and betters understand, for they have to mop up your childish magic in the end, kid! Parental control, authority and institutions know best – as Jack Zipes notes of Disney’s version in Fantasia.
“…young people are to obey omnipotent people, and if they try to use the knowledge and power of their mentors before they have been fully formed by these magicians, they will bring demons into the world and create chaos.”
For Zipes (A leading authority on fairy tale literature) there are two possible roads for the apprentice to travel along. One road is for The Humiliated Apprentice and the other for The Rebellious Apprentice.
The journey taken to humiliate child-power magic was instigated by Goethe’s poem of 1798, The Pupil in Magic and much later culminated in the most contemporary global expression of the power and control of magicians - the Harry Potter books. Zipes persuasively argues the Potter books are so caught up in a media phenomenon that it creates its own kind of ‘magic’ power of total acceptance - the media as manipulative magician, if you like. “To be phenomenal means that a person or commodity must conform to the tastes of hegemonic groups that determine what makes for a phenomenon. In short, it is impossible to be phenomenal without conforming to conventionality.” Zipes critique will not please fans of J.K.Rowling but does advance his point about the Potter novels harking back to earlier stories of magicians and apprentices.
To counter the conservatism of Goethe and Rowling, we have the archetype of the rebellious apprentice as shaped by the 16th century Italian writer Giovan Francesco Straparola. His tale Maestro Lattantio and his Apprentice Dionigi (1550) provided the groundwork for The Brothers Grimm who in 1819 produced the story, The Nimble Thief and his Master. This subversive tale kicks out domesticated magic to replace it with sorcery outside of the law. A young man is apprenticed to a magician in order to become a master thief, made possible by his father who takes the advice of his sexton that his son should learn the trade of thieving! At the end of the story Master and apprentice instantly turn themselves into a fox and a rooster (the transformative powers of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are to be found in all apprentice stories.) The fox (apprentice) bites off the head of the rooster (magician). And for the Brothers Grimm their magician stays very dead!
Zipes employs the term ‘meme’ (not in the current internet definition of information passed on but as a cultural idea or value imitated from one generation to the next). Sorcerer’s apprentice myths have generally been shaped more conservatively in America and more radically in Eastern Europe. Yet long before Goethe and Grimm, cultures as different as Ancient Egypt, and 10th century India skilfully played with these important narratives.
Zipes attempts to elucidate why Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic is important for our understanding of “the struggle young people face in the process of individuation.” Tales of apprentice resistance bring political enlightenment, knowledge of magic (self-belief) and how the world operates: whereas stories of submission demonstrate the cunning use of power to uphold a socio-economic system. Any plotting of Hegel (and to a lesser extent Adorno) through this book’s very long (it’s an 80 page essay) and really fascinating introduction is not an easy task. Zipes doesn’t totally convince me of the German philosophical underpinning to these stories. Yet it’s a brave attempt that broadly makes sense as the master/slave dialectic spreads out into other cultural fields.
Zipes is much more successful in reflecting on the effects of such tales on the psychology of children. For this he draws in the theories of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children.
“Childism can be defined as a belief system that constructs its target group, ”the child”, as an immature being produced and owned by adults who use it to serve their own needs and fantasies.”
Zipes response is.
“In the case of both the tale types…we have fantasies that have taken the form of diverse fairy tales. These two tales form a whole narrative that allows us to grasp the myriad childist ways that young people are badgered and deprived of the knowledge of magic that might enable them to transform themselves as they wish – not just to survive.”
If this review has allocated more space to Zipes’s introduction, and his subsequent theorising, than the tales themselves, that’s because I urge everyone to savour the brilliance of its breadth and insight. Please read and digest it before embarking on this anthology of marvellous tales. There are almost 60. It’s difficult to select favourites as they all ingeniously present the tropes of the sorcerer’s apprentice. As a bonus we have Zipes’s research into sorcerer film versions. I’d suggest not only watching Disney again, but the enchanting films of Karel Zeman, Michael Powell’s arresting short film and a strange TV episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (The last two films are now available on YouTube. Powell's film is linked below)
So forget Harry Potter’s dubious wizardry and allow yourself to succumb to the real pre-media phenomenal thing as edited, with magical authority, by Mr. Jack Zipes. – Alan Price